EXCLUSIVE: In their third collaboration after Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg turn their ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances storytelling to Patriots Day. Few have made more memorable Boston-based films than Wahlberg, whose list includes The Perfect Storm, The Departed, The Fighter, Ted and its sequel. Here, they discuss their storytelling responsibility after pressing a community to relive a tragedy so they could turn it into a permanent document of courage and resilience. And, with yet another inherently Boston movie under his belt, and being the only homegrown actor to have shot scenes with the city’s two reigning sports deities — Tom Brady and David Ortiz — has Wahlberg eclipsed fellow Bostonians Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as the city’s favorite movie son?
DEADLINE: When Patriots Day was first proposed, you had to fear the feeling of, here comes Hollywood to exploit a tragedy. Explain the back and forth that led to both of you making this film.
PETER BERG: There were two things working in our favor. First was Mark, bringing me into the community and introducing me to so many of the people who were affected. The victims and their families, the survivors, the police. It made the actual practical telling of the story so important, the who did what, and where. In doing that, we talked a lot about lines of taste and decorum. We would work very hard to not cross that line. You can’t always articulate what that line is, but you know when you cross it. That was a big responsibility we had to work with. The other issue, and the reason we really wanted to make the film, was we didn’t want to see an action movie. This was not a Jason Bourne-type film. This had to be about something else.
DEADLINE: It works as a thriller, though, because of its procedural approach and ticking clock.
BERG: It is all those things but for me, it really could serve as an example of how we process this new reality, the world we live in. Where we wake up, turn on the news, and we’re not surprised to see there has been another terrorist act. I wanted to make a film that, as much as it had that procedural, ticking-clock thriller stuff, was a look at how a community survives something like this. The idea that love can still win, that good can beat evil. These were themes that were very important to me after Mark brought me into this community and we started doing the research.
MARK WAHLBERG: What you said about the idea of Hollywood coming in…I had the same initial reaction, to the point I didn’t think of the pros and cons of making the movie. My initial reaction was no, not for me. It’s too fresh. But it was clear, they were going to make it anyway and I didn’t even get to say, I don’t think it should be done so soon. They said, OK, we’re going to go to the next guy. There were actually three competing movie projects at the time. I was still thinking, here comes Hollywood, but I realized what if it’s not the right person, with the respect and sensitivity to not come in and exploit these people? I just pictured the possibility of gratuitous violence and these people being exploited. And I figured, OK, if this is going to happen, how can I control it and make sure it is done right? That thought evolved to, why would there be good reasons to make it? I came around to this: the strongest reason was how my community responded and how proud I was. Having grown up in Boston and having been in situations early in my life where I had been a direct reflection of the racial divide, and all that stuff. Any time I left Boston I would hear this is how people saw this town. I realized this could be something that really showed what our community is all about, and how far we’ve come. And there was the other message. You turn on the news and see this stuff happening, everywhere. The message that love, and people coming together and uniting, it is something that needs to be seen, and heard. So if it was going to be done, we were going to be the ones doing it. Making sure we get it right. Last night at that premiere here, was me, reaching my own finish line and being able to show my community this movie. I saw how proud they were, in the way they were represented. That to me was a relief.
DEADLINE: You seem to have become Boston’s everyman, with all the movies you’ve made here.
WAHLBERG: There was The Perfect Storm, Departed, The Fighter, Ted, Ted 2…well lets just say a lot of movies made in Boston. But I don’t care what my resume said, it still wasn’t enough. They needed to hear directly from me what our intentions were. And once we told them, they always reminded me of our obligation to get it right, to make them proud. They would literally grab me, every chance they got, and remind us.
BERG: What hit home for me was a conversation I had with Jessica Downes [who lost both legs and whose character is prominently featured in the film] after she saw the movie for the first time. We talked for a while, and we walked outside. She stopped me. “I can’t believe I am going to say this,” she said. “I never thought about the fact when my husband and I were separated and taken to different hospitals, but they must have been amputating our legs, at the same time. To watch that, and to see the inter-cutting between Patrick’s leg being cut, and mine being cut, the only word I can use to describe that is…beautiful.” That really hit me hard, her saying it was really beautiful to think about them being connected in that way. I’m not going to say it felt good, but it definitely hit me hard.
DEADLINE: Lone Survivor was beloved and a big hit here, but you could see that outside the country there was reluctance to embrace a story they might call jingoistic. What lessons did you learn that you applied here to make the film appeal outside the U.S.?
BERG: It’s challenging. When it comes time to sell these films, the international distributors say, “Jeez, Pete, you’re really making it hard on us.” There are a lot of American flags, and inherently American components to these films.
WAHLBERG: If you think about that on an American level, look at what American Sniper was able to do, after the success of Lone Survivor. They didn’t expect it, and nobody really believed in it that much, and not just on a domestic level. Everybody loved the movie but they didn’t realize the reaction they got. Where a 20-plex in Texas would only be showing it, and they would cancel everything else? Here, the message feels so universal. It’s really a global problem everybody is dealing with and we want to do our best to have everybody sees it for that reason. It wasn’t any discussion about box office potential.
BERG: I have been on the phone for the past two weeks with every foreign distributor that Lionsgate and Patrick Wachsberger set me up on. I am very clear when I talk to them. Sometimes we have this issue with American action films. We assume that all they care about in foreign markets is an American actor running around and shooting things. I don’t personally believe that. I’ve spoken to French, English, Australian, Italian, Chinese, and Russian distributors. What’s interesting is they talk about wanting to sell the themes of love, community and spirit of this film, more than action and gunplay. I think we live in a more intelligent world right now. I remember the first time I went to China on a press tour. I was so impressed with the young journalists there, how much they knew about cinema, how thoughtful and articulate they were. It’s a mistake to lump all foreign distribution tactics to something as simplistic as “action.” Terrorism is something the U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on. It certainly has hit countries like Paris just as much as it has hit us. They said they want the chance to explore the human and emotional toll this takes, and that is encouraging. I don’t know they’re really going to do it; they might still sell the poster of Mark running somewhere with a gun. Hopefully the ads and the message will be more thoughtful than that.
DEADLINE: American Sniper had a superb marketing campaign that allowed viewers to see the enormous stakes these soldiers operate under, and the effects of PTSD on soldiers placed in impossible situations. I think that is why it did so much repeat business. Patriots Day also has ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Start with Danny Meng, who fled from his carjacked vehicle and saved who knows how many lives by stopping those terrorists from driving to New York. I don’t know I could have done what he did. You hope you would respond to that fight or flight moment like he did, but how many people do?
BERG: Of the ordinary anti-hero heroics we saw here, Danny Meng probably stood out more than anyone. I went to a one-hour lunch with him and stayed four hours and fell in love with him and realized, this is the new face of heroism. Not some big, tough, well-trained, tactically proficient Navy SEAL. This was a 24-year-old Chinese American who’d been in the country three months. And who used every bit of courage, wit and intelligence he had, to stay alive and plan and execute a pretty amazing escape. Then, to have the wherewithal to remember that GPS number and give it to the cops, before retreating back into his life, I found that pretty touching.
WAHLBERG: I got Danny to come to my house after the AFI premiere along with Ed Davis, Jeff Pugliese and others. I know what it’s like to work really hard for something and then have it destroyed, and the car meant so much to him.
DEADLINE: His beloved Mercedes was completely shot up in that Waterstown shootout…
WAHLBERG: I asked, did your insurance company give you the full value of the car? “No,” he says, “Mercedes gave me a new car.” I asked did he know that tracking number and he said Mercedes gave him the exact same number as the last car. It was such a great story.
BERG: Danny said he realized, when they had taken all his money, and they were pumping in the gas, he said, “I knew they were going to kill me. I was sitting there, thinking about my mother and my father, and how they were going to hear I was dead and how they were going to be very sad.” He said that made him very sad. But then he said he thought about his new car. This is what he said: “I had worked so hard for that car, and I loved the car so much, and I think they are going to kill me and steal my car, and I’m never going to see my car again. I think about this, and I get very mad. And I think to myself, f*ck this guy, and I did it.” When he told me that, I had chills. He was so straightforward.
DEADLINE: That is approximately what he says in one of the movie’s memorable lines, even though he said he told it you, Pete, after the fact.
BERG: He said, “F*ck those guys, that was in his heart and so that was what I wrote. And how about this: the whole reason this happened was, he pulled over because he didn’t want to drive and text, because it is dangerous and not the right thing to do. Easy guy to fall in love with.
DEADLINE: The knee-jerk reaction when you think about Boston’s favorite movie sons would be to say Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. But what about your place, Mark, and why is this city a groundswell for so many good character-based movies?
WAHLBERG: There are so many great stories to be told here. There are so many great characters. They’ve done a great job, those guys. I think I’ve made more movies about Boston than them, but we can all co-exist. They can have Cambridge and everything on that side of the bridge. And everything this way, towards the hood, that is mine. I’ve been to their neck of the woods. I’m not sure they’ve spent that much time in mine.
DEADLINE: Affleck did make Gone Baby Gone in Dorchester.
WAHLBERG: I would love to take them and show them more, because there are a lot of people there who they’ve inspired and who would like to meet them and say how much of an inspiration they’ve been. They created their own success in writing Good Will Hunting and they’ve had great careers. There are a lot of great stories to be told here. And these movies mean Hollywood and creative people will now try to find other great places and other stories in the New England area.
DEADLINE: Even though she’s not central to the plot, the wife of terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev is interrogated by this shadowy team, featuring a woman who appears to be Muslim. How much of a balancing act was there in what you could tell as the legal case proceeded?
BERG: Once the trial was over, we had free rein. This film was made in the research, and it came down to casual meetings over a couple beers with FBI agents and cops and people directly involved in the investigation, and getting them to believe they could trust us. The more they trusted us — and this is where having Mark make those introductions was so valuable because they trusted him — the more they told us. That intelligence interview with Katherine Russell was done by a group called The High Value Interrogation Group, which is comprised of some pretty tough people. When someone is believed to have knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack, all rules are off. You lose your constitutional rights. We knew they did an interrogation. They wouldn’t give us the transcripts but they worked with us as we wrote the scene, and told us whether we here hot or cold. They asked questions about whether she knew the whereabouts of more bombs. She made comments about the complexities of being married to a Muslim. So subtly, they helped us write that scene without coming out of the shadows. I wanted it in there because I thought it was a very interesting scene and I found it somehow comforting that, as rough and as dark and evil as these terrorists can be, well, if we need to get dark and we need to meet that evil with a similar firepower, we have people who can do that.